Treatment rates and barriers to mental health service utilisation among university students in South Africa

Jason Bantjes, Molly J. Kessler, Xanthe Hunt, Dan J. Stein, Ronald C. Kessler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Background: Mental health problems are common and impairing among university students, yet only a minority of students with psychological disorders access treatment. Understanding barriers to treatment is integral to planning services, especially in resource constrained settings like South Africa (SA). Methods: Data collected across 17 institutions in the online SA National Student Mental Health Survey were used to: (1) estimate 12-month prevalence of common mental health problems and self-harm; (2) estimate the proportion of students receiving treatments for the various mental health problems; (3) explore barriers to treatment; and (4) investigate sociodemographic predictors of treatment mediated through the various barriers endorsed by students with mental health problems. Prevalence analyses were carried out using cross-tabulations and prediction analyses using modified Poisson regression models. Results: Prevalence of clinically significant mental health problems is high relative to international comparisons, with the prevalence of severe, mild and moderate symptoms of any disorder and/or self-harm of 24.8% (SD = 0.3), 18.8% (SD = 0.3) and 27.6% (SD = 0.4) respectively. Treatment rates were 35.2% (S.E. = 0.6) among students with mental health problems who perceived need for treatment and 21.3% (S.E. = 0.4) irrespective of perceived need. Treatment rates were highest for mood disorders (29.9%, S.E. = 0.6) and lowest for externalising disorders (23.8%, S.E. = 0.5). Treatment rates were much less variable across disorder types among students with perceived need than irrespective of perceived need, indicating that perceived need mediated the associations of disorder types with received treatment. Adjusting for disorder profile, probability of obtaining treatment was significantly and positively associated with older age, female gender, study beyond the first year, traditional sexual orientation, and diverse indicators of social advantage (full-time study, high parent education, and attending Historically White Institutions). Among students with mental health problems, numerous barriers to treatment were reported adjusting for disorder profile, including lack of perceived need (39.5%, S.E. = 0.5) and, conditional on perceived need, psychological (54.4%, S.E. = 1.0), practical (77.3%, S.E. = 1.1), and other (79.1%, S.E. = 1.1) barriers. Typically, students reported multiple barriers to treatment. Differences in perceived need explained the gender difference in treatment, whereas practical barriers were most important in accounting for the other predictors of treatment. Conclusion: Mental health problems are highly prevalent but seldom treated among SA university students. Although many barriers were reported, practical barriers were especially important in accounting for the associations of social disadvantage with low rates of treatment. Many of these practical barriers are however addressable.

Original languageEnglish
Article number38
JournalInternational Journal of Mental Health Systems
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2023
Externally publishedYes


  • Mental disorders
  • Mental health problems
  • Suicidality
  • Treatment barriers
  • Treatment rates
  • University students


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